It's enough to drive a PR guru to drink: The company president is writing a blog about corporate vision, the stock price, his vacation to Colorado, and his new golden retriever puppy. What will the shareholders think?
Sound far-fetched? Guess again. Some of the highest-ranking managers at companies like Sun Microsystems, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, and Boeing have entered the blogosphere, writing weekly or semimonthly entries in their online diaries. Any curious reader can learn why Sun's President and COO Jonathan Schwartz suffered two months of bad hair days (hint: Never let your 2-year-old's barber trim your ponytail). Or find out what Bob Lutz, vice chairman of global product development for General Motors, has been driving lately (preproduction models of the Pontiac Solstice and G6 Coupe, and a Hummer H3). You can read the thoughts of Randy Baseler, vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, about why Airbus's strategy is dead wrong (come on Randy, tell us what you really think). And you can find out how all of these executives view important trends in their industry.
What's driving these busy executives to carve hours out of their busy week to cast their views into the sometimes hostile world of Web logs? Partly it's the appeal of a bully pulpit to promote their views, unfiltered by the media. Partly it's the desire to create a new kind of dialogue with customers, industry observers, and employees. And partly it's the hope of crafting a more human face and voice for the company.
High hopes, indeed. But can executive blogs really pull it off? Blogs, after all, are known for being spontaneous, raw, and controversial--while many corporate executives have spent their career being everything but. "In some respects," says Michael Smith, professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia, "the image of an executive blogging is akin to the image of a portly person in a Speedo bathing suit--something doesn't quite fit."
Still, many executives are finding that the benefits of opening up outweigh the risks of too much exposure.
For Carole Brown, chair of the Chicago Transit Board, her blog offered a way to respond to public criticism over budget problems and service cuts that were under consideration. "The Chicago Tribune allowed readers to post comments online about what we were considering," she says. "I read all the comments and got frustrated that I couldn't respond to them." On her blog, launched in April, she's posted details about the organization's budget struggle, as well as topics of general interest to transit users--like why, after someone waits an hour at a bus stop, five almost empty buses show up at the same time. On its busiest days, she says her blog attracts as many as 1,000 visitors.
"When you talk to a reporter, they report what you say, but they have limited space and their own point of view," Brown says. But in her blog, "I don't have to be balanced. I can just tell people what I think."
In focus. Blogs also appeal to senior executives seeking to create a dialogue with readers. Most blogs allow users to post their own comments, offering feedback that doesn't exist with press releases or other communications. "It helps you fine-tune how you're going to use your messages," says Boeing's Baseler. "If we say it this way, do people understand, or will they look at us glassy-eyed? It gives you an idea how to shape your other communications."
But whom, exactly, are you reaching? "I have no idea," says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of public-relations firm Edelman, regarding the readership of his own blog on industry trends. While most executive bloggers can tell you how many page views they receive (Edelman's blog draws about 6,500 visits a month), few can tell you who's actually reading the online musings.
It's probably not the general public: Only 27 percent of Internet users read blogs (and only 38 percent of Internet users even know what a blog is), according to a 2004 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. But based on comments posted to their blogs, most executive bloggers conclude their audience is a mix of industry insiders--customers, industry analysts, journalists, employees, and competitors.
"Blog readers are a small but very influential group of people," says Mark Hass, CEO of public-relations firm Manning Selvage & Lee. The firm's BlogWorks unit launched and maintains the technical aspects of FastLane, GM's executive blog where Lutz and other executives post their Web journals.
Whoever the other readers may be, it's a safe bet that employees are perusing their boss's online entries. And that can make blogs a valuable management tool.
At Intel, CEO and President Paul Otellini writes about company initiatives, new accounts, and other news on an internal blog available to Intel's 80,000 employees. And at HP, Rich Marcello, senior vice president and general manager of business-critical servers, views his public blog as a way to promote a whole new style of management.
"A lot of the traditional Management 101 you might have read 10 years ago doesn't apply anymore," he says. "It's much more about leading in a way that's a good balance between who you are as a person and what you're doing at work, showing that you're just as comfortable dealing with poetry as with profit and loss."
Marcello's blog, launched in December, includes entries that are all business--celebrating a good quarterly result or the completion of an important project. But some are far more philosophical musings on management style. And some, like a poem he wrote about his late father for his Father's Day posting, are strictly personal.
Marcello feels his frank and wide-ranging blog, which had drawn 32,000 visits as of May, ultimately promotes better relationships between managers and employees: "In traditional management, the boss knows stuff and the employees don't. I'm trying to say, 'Hey, you can see it all.' "
Promoting a new sense of openness--whether with employees, customers, or the public--is one of the most important things that blogs can accomplish in this age of mistrust. "What people think about businesses right now couldn't be any worse. As a result, you want to be as open and honest as you can," says Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.
But for all the advantages that executive blogs may offer, they still pose daunting questions for corporations. One of the most critical: Can executives, ever cognizant of the need for discretion, really sound credible in the raw, straight-talking world of blogs?
Yes and no, says Argenti. "It's naive to think these blogs are anything other than carefully planned communications. Because of regulation and the possibility of attacks from antagonists, companies can't be off the cuff in their communication." However, he adds, "it's a good thing that there's more communication from senior executives, because people don't want these folks sitting in an ivory tower."
Cease-fire? Some executives are more than happy to descend from the tower and engage in the kind of frankness--even controversy--that makes blogs compelling. Boeing's Baseler seems eager to demonstrate how Airbus's strategy misses the mark. And Sun's Schwartz, whose blog receives about 5,000 visits a day, never hesitates to point out where IBM, HP, or other tech companies are making strategic mistakes. In fact, one posting in August 2004 prompted HP to send Sun a cease-and-desist letter objecting to his blog statements. Schwartz's response? He posted a link to the letter on his blog but didn't change his statements.
Yet to earn credibility in the blog world, executive bloggers need to be able to take it as well as dish it out. That means allowing readers to post their own comments--positive and negative. And it means owning up to bad news about the company, at least obliquely. For example, although GM Vice Chairman Lutz hasn't directly alluded to GM's struggles with its stock price or its overall profitability, the company has at least nodded to its troubles. "There's no denying that we're going through some tough times right now," a GM executive wrote on May 5.
Executives launching blogs should also be prepared for a chilly initial reception on the Web. "We got negative comments from the guardians of the blogosphere, saying, 'You're a corporate hack. Turn your blog off,' " recalls Baseler. He was also chastised for not allowing readers to post their own comments on the blog--a blunder that Baseler says wasn't an attempt at spin control, just a lack of the right software, and which has now been fixed.
"It takes a little bit of a thick hide," he admits. His perseverance paid off, though: In June, his blog received 26,500 visits.
To avoid initial missteps, some companies turn to public-relations firms to advise them on blog strategy and sometimes to set up and maintain the technical aspects of the blog. Others rely on their in-house communications staff to post their entries. Both options allow executives to write entries on their BlackBerrys, E-mail them off, and be done with it. However they do it, every executive interviewed claimed to write his or her blog personally, with little or no editing from the public-relations staff.
"Every once in a while, I'll run it by someone if I'm worried about a nuance or legality," says Sun's Schwartz.
Still, "I don't think you'll see more than a handful of CEO s doing this at public companies," says Alan Meckler, chairman and CEO of Jupitermedia, whose blog on Internet trends gets about 5,000 page views a day. "There's so much litigation and it's so easy to get a lawsuit filed against a company or get the SEC involved."
In any case, blogs aren't right for every executive. "Most senior executives rise to the top by being very analytical and buttoned up and left-brained," says Lutz. "That very careful executive is probably not going to be a good blogger."
But then again, in this day of public mistrust, the buttoned-up executive may be the last thing that corporations need.
Vice president of marketing, Boeing Commercial Airplanes http://www.boeing.com/randy
May 25, 2005
A new blue airplane has taken to the skies over Puget Sound. It's the second 777-200LR Worldliner.
Yesterday [WD002] took off from Paine Field in Everett for the first time. She'll now join WD001 in flight tests and certification over the next several months before their delivery to Pakistan International Airlines.
A tip of the hat to Airbus. Most of us had our first opportunity this afternoon to see the A380 fly. Without question it is an impressive technological achievement, and its flight demonstration was a big highlight today. But as I've reminded many people, our strategic difference with Airbus in the very large airplane market has little to do with the airplane itself. It has to do with the fact that the A380 is a very large (and now having seen it up close, I do mean very large) airplane for a very small part of the commercial airplane market.
Airbus tried stirring things up a bit today. Their CEO Noel Forgeard held a news conference here and proceeded to criticize . . . everything from our strategy and our 787 Dreamliner, to the way Boeing does public relations. At the same time, he tried offering us advice about our business practices! Hmm. Could it be that the competition is just feeling the heat a bit?
Vice chairman, General Motors
June 10, 2005
What we are re-learning as a company is that we are not simply in the transportation business; we're in the art and entertainment business.
So, what we've got at GM now, is a general comprehension that you can't run this business by the left intellectual, analytical side of your brain alone, you have to have a lot of right side creative input.
June 2, 2005
Right now I'm driving a test-fleet preproduction Solstice, a Hummer H3 and a preproduction Pontiac G6 Coupe. I'm sort of rotating through these vehicles, and enjoying myself very much.
May 12, 2005
"What is GM's strategy for fixing its issues?"
A good and fair question. Let's start by saying there's no magic bullet for our issues, at least none that we've uncovered . . . .
April 7, 2005
Some of you may remember my opening salvo for this blog back in January:
"After years of reading and reacting to the automotive press it is finally my turn to put the shoe on the other foot. In the age of the Internet, anyone can be a journalist."
What began as an experiment has become an important means of communication for GM. It has given me, personally, an opportunity to get much closer with you, the public.
Chair, Chicago Transit Authority http://ctachair.blogspot.com
June 9, 2005
. . . We are painfully aware of the fact that this 54.3 million dollars, however much appreciated, is not the answer to our long-term problems. It is a band-aid to slow the bleeding but you cannot treat a gaping wound with a band-aid. [Refers to a one-time grant given by the Illinois legislature in June to bridge CTA funding problems.]
May 20, 2005
Why, after a long wait, do two or three buses often come along at the same time . . . This . . . is known in the transit business as "bus bunching" . . . CTA is doing a number of innovative things to manage it.
Two of the most promising are traffic signal priority . . . and a GPS-based Automatic Vehicle Location bus tracking system to let our control center monitor the spacing of buses in real-time.
Senior vice president and general manager of business-critical servers, Hewlett-Packard http://www.hp.com/blogs/marcello
June 20, 2005
It's Father's Day and I'm sitting on my screened porch. My backyard has a lot of trees . . . it's both secluded and peaceful. I'm thinking about how lucky I am to have my family around me today and also about what a gift it's been to be a father all of these years . . . .
In reality, it's one of those days when sweet and sad are somehow the same--all mixed up together into one blurry set of feelings and that's somehow OK. The sadness is about my dad who died when I was very young. Through the years, I've learned to accept that this holiday in particular . . . stirs up a lot of old memories for me . . . .
June 6, 2005
A friend of mine died last week. He was a good man--honest, sincere, constantly trying to do the right thing, an expert in his chosen field.
I knew him for over twenty years and worked closely with him during the last ten . . . . I found myself thinking back to what a truly helpful and generous man he was. And I found myself thinking that depression just took another one of the good guys. We will miss you Terry.
This story appears in the July 25, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.